Last Friday night I attended an encore performance of Billy Bob Shakesbeer's Oaf-fellow, the Boor of Menace at Fraud's Theater in Washington D.C. Since it's debut in 1944, this classic tragedy has been captivating and enthralling generations of Americans with its unique blend of pathos, grit, rustic flummery, and unsettling reliance on deus ex machina plot twists. Now, on the occasion of its sixty-fifth birthday, Oaf-fellow is faced with the prospect of having the plug pulled on its footlights. During the next few weeks, the National Theater Company's Termination Panel will decide under what conditions (if any) the play is likely to be revived. The ultimate decision is, as they say, in the hands of Washington theatrical bureaucrats who aren't answerable to anyone but themselves.
Be that as it may, on this particular evening, the President and First Lady were on hand for the play's final gala performance. Out of respect for their presence, and in tacit acknowledgment of one particularly regrettable mishap that occurred during a previous presidential visit to Fraud's Theater, audience members were asked to voluntarily check their hunting rifles, shotguns, flame-throwers, grenade-launchers, and surface-to-air missiles at the wine bar in the lobby before entering the theater proper, which (to their credit) most agreed to do. The only persons permitted to retain sidearms, derringers, bowie knives, crossbows, and poison-tipped darts for personal protection were, of course, the actors themselves.
But what of the individual merits and unprecedented longevity of the play? The fact that Oaf-fellow has survived on the D.C. stage longer even than the combined runs of Cats!, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera is hardly surprising when one considers that its seasoned cast is a virtual Who's Who of Washington character actors (not to say actors of character). And while this critic has been known on more than one occasion to criticize the well-worn practice of unimaginative type-casting, I must admit that in this case the virtual melding of these actors with their respective roles achieves the kind of free-wheeling ensemble cast performance that most Tony-winning actors can only dream of.
The heroine of the play, Desmarona (movingly portrayed by Mademoiselle Healthcare Reform) is a fragile, helpless, and long-suffering victim of serial abuse who endures relentless torment and unimaginable badgering throughout the first two acts, only to be mutilated, strangled, hanged, disemboweled, quartered, saturated with pitch, and burned alive at the stake at least twice in Act Three by the inherently decent (but irredeemably thick-headed) protagonist, Oaf-fellow, the Boor of Menace. The part of Oaf is played with admirable simplicity by noted trailer park thespian Nick Bottom Quartile (whose frequent guest appearances on American Idol, Judge Judy, and Tennessee Town Hall Truckers have made him a perennial favorite with American audiences). Like all tragic heroes, Oaf-fellow takes considerable pains to dismantle and destroy that which would shield him from harm, and steadfastly embraces those forces that seek to fleece, gut, and skewer him. That, of course, is what makes Oaf so heroic and endearing. He is we, as we are he, as we are free, and we all fail together (ha, ha, ha, he, he, he, ho, ho, ho).
But the dramatic fulcrum on which the play pivots is the character of Quasiago (played with vaudevillian subtlety by the irrepressible Glenn Beck) an imbecilic, uni-dimensional villain with the heart of Iago and the mental acumen of Quasimodo. It is Quasiago who uses a bewildering blizzard of implausible lies and inherently preposterous circular arguments to play on the unfocused anxiety, groundless fears, and puffed-up vanity of Oaf-fellow. As we watch his clumsily constructed machinations succeed in subverting all known rules of logic, we marvel at the artistic audacity of the playwright almost as much as we agonize over the corkscrewy cosmology of a universe where such absurdities are even remotely conceivable. As Quasiago himself proclaims (while crowning himself with his own half-empty inverted chamber pot during the final, climactic scene), "In the land of the witless, the half-wit is king."
Upon hearing such noble sentiment so admirably expressed, I must confess that with hot tears in my eyes I leapt to my feet, shouting,"Vive le Roi!"
It was a sentiment obviously shared by many other audience members at Fraud's that night. Even as the final curtain came down, several of them signaled their enthusiastic approval by drawing concealed weapons out of their boots, hats, overcoats, and handbags and firing a round of celebratory but harmless shots through the theater's ornately-carved plaster ceiling and into the make-shift hospice care facility on the second floor.
"Oaf-fellow is not only every man, he's an every man for all seasons," one elderly theater-goer told me on the way out, "In the sixty-five years since the play first de'buted here in Washington, my husband and I have seen it seventeen times, as performed by six different casts. And no matter how many times we see it, we never get tired of expecting it to turn out differently..."
I couldn't have said it better myself.